QUINLAN – “Come go fishing,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said.
What they did not mention was that the temperature was going to dip 40 degrees from what it had been hours earlier and -- matched with a 14 mph easterly wind -- the wind chill temperature would be in the lower 30s. But shortly after sunrise on a bone-chilling, blustery April morning, Mike Leggett and I were in the parking lot layering clothes in preparation for the boat ride from Goody’s Marina on Lake Tawakoni to where the Sabine River makes a big bend just south of Two Mile Bridge.
Although late in the year for catching big trophy catfish, guides Randy and Chad Parker believe they have discovered a way to extend the season well into spring and possibly early summer.
The Parkers are catfish fanatics and Tawakoni is their home lake. They are so into it that they make their own punch bait that is sold around the lake. Up until now, however, the Parkers have avoided the big fish craze. Their forte has been cooler fish, limits of smaller fish that are perfect for the fryer.
For others, Tawakoni has earned a reputation as possibly the state’s top trophy catfish fishery. It is a relatively new type of fishery created by the maturing of blue catfish stocked by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In a one-time stocking in 1989, the department released 367,000 of the fish. The survivors and now some of their offspring have grown to trophy size, including an 87.5-pound lake record caught in 2014.
The fishery attracts fishermen primarily during the harshest winter conditions for an extreme form of fishing and tournaments. While those coming to Tawakoni dream of catching at least a 50-pounder, the reality is that anything over 20 pounds is special and challenging.
“What happens is that in December, January and February, these fish move up from deeper water to spawn. Now they are moving back out, “ explained Randy Parker.
Using that knowledge, the two weekend-only guides are experimenting with trying to stay on the fish at a time they would be looking toward catching channel cats moving up to spawn. In just a month of trying, they have boated a largest fish weighing 61 pounds with a number of others 20 pounds and up.
The Parkers' technique is not anything different than is being done by others except they are making some of their own drift fishing rigs. The technique is the catfish version of drifting a Carolina rig for bass except that for a weight they are using a 4-ounce piece of rod attached to a piece of plastic tubing to prevent it from becoming hung on the bottom. Instead of a plastic worm, they use chunks of large gizzard shad attached to a 7/0 or 8/0 semi-circle hook floated above the same type cork usually seen floating on the surface above bait.
The keys are to keep the boat moving at the right pace, somewhere between a half mile and a mile per hour, and in the right location.
“These catfish are like a deer. They travel the creeks. They move in on them and back out on them,” Randy Parker said.
Then all they have to do is run the bait past the fish.
“These big blues are eating machines. They will eat anything that comes by them," Chad Parker noted.
Our first effort to make a drift was thwarted by a strong east wind. The waves would not have kept the bait at the right depth and the Parkers were concerned the wind direction would not have allowed them to drift the spots they wanted.
A couple of hours later, the wind subsided some and moved to the southeast. Not perfect but a much better combination. For even calmer waters, we started behind a protective point, but the average water depth was just 20 feet, too shallow for the fish.
Using a drift sock to slow the boat, the Parkers repositioned the boat and made a second run in 25 to 30 feet of water. It did not take long for one of the 6 ½-foot rods to bend 90 degrees and the scramble began. Within minutes, a 12-pound fish was in the boat. It was appetizer for what came next.
With the boat repositioned again in deeper water, the Parkers watched their fish finder light up crossing a creek channel. Seconds later, the bait reached the spot and a rod creaked in its holder and then whipped backward. This was a much bigger fish.
Fishing like you would a big saltwater fish, reeling down to the surface and pulling back up, the battle was on. It looked like Leggett was winning until the fish got boat side, began to spin as catfish do and took off to the front of the boat. Suddenly it stopped, turned and went back around the motor and up the other side.
It was almost played out, but still presented a challenge for Chad Parker to boat. Their large net had been left ashore, leaving the only way to get the boat in being a pair of locking fishing pliers that were used to grasp the fish’s lip.
The big fish weighed 39.6 pounds, which according to TPWD research is at least 20 years old. It was quickly photographed and released as are all fish 10 pounds and larger brought into the Parkers’ and most guide’s boats on the lake.
“When you're fishing for these big fish, it really is not a numbers game. You are fishing for hopefully one fish a day,” Randy Parker explained.
Our luck was a little better. On a final drift toward the marina, I got my chance with a 32-pounder. It was chunkier than Leggett’s but not as long. It did not have as much fight as the bigger fish, but still provided the strongest pull I have felt with a freshwater fish in Texas.
Chad Parker said he believes the technique could work well into summer, but that they plan to stop when it gets too hot because the fish get lazy, do not eat as much, weigh as much or fight enough.
For more information on catching Tawakoni’s giants, call Randy Parker at 903-340-4133.